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Grandma's Nemesis

My Grandma Pearl had a nemesis. Her name was Martha. Believe me; something is lost in merely typing her name. If you were a Seinfeld fan, think of how Jerry use to say "Newman". Much like Jerry, my grandma's top lip would quiver, her nose would wrinkle, and she'd get this phlegmy thing going in the back of her throat each and every time she said Martha's name ... it was as if the name itself was coated in gall.

I met Martha. As a matter of fact, I had the distinct misfortune of encountering her on numerous occasions. She was a cantankerous old broad! My older brother and I often spent the night at Grandma Pearl's. And sometimes she'd have the ladies over to play pinochle. Martha coming to the house was not an event Grandma took lightly. She'd spend the day cleaning, fluffing and baking. Not that her house wasn't always impeccable, but preparing for Martha required extra attention. Pictures needed to be turned at special angles, each petal of the plastic flowers in her center piece needed to be dusted, and her copies of Reader's Digest, Prevention and Women's Day needed to be fanned out on her coffee table with precision tuning. And then there were the snacks. She always spent a great deal of time preparing something that had to have the appearance of requiring no effort at all. She would never want to give Martha the satisfaction of knowing that she cared enough about her opinion to invest any time preparing for her.

I remember one particular encounter with Martha. At the time I was in 4th grade and my brother was in 5th. He had brought his guitar along, because as an aspiring Beatle, he never went anywhere without it! I was wearing my new faux leather jumper, and was definitely feeling like I was styling. Grandma Pearl thought it was great. Being a trend setter herself...she was the envy of the blue haired society...she would have donned the jumper herself if it had come in a polyester double knit! But to put the finishing touches on my look, Grandma insisted on "doing" my hair. I sat through having my hair slathered with Dippety Do...this neon colored, gelatinous substance...then wrapped in curlers so tight that I looked like Joan Rivers after her 10th face lift, and placed under a domed hairdryer to bake for an hour. In the meantime, Grandma was in the kitchen baking her legendary apple pie. When my hair was dried, Grandma removed the curlers and teased my hair (for you youngsters unfamiliar with "teasing" this was the unnatural and tortuous practice of sliding a comb repeatedly up and down through your hair creating "volume", and as a nasty byproduct, tangles that were impossible to brush out!). When grandma was done I looked like a water buffalo, but Grandma was happy with the results, and heck, if it brought her anxiety level down a notch, it was worth it.

So, the final preparations were completed just as Martha's car pulled up. She had picked up a couple of the other women, and as they got out of the car, Grandma gave the signal which cued my brother to start playing the guitar, and required me to sit poised in a chair, giving the appearance of a demure debutant. Grandma's cheeks were noticeably flushed, but as the delicious aroma of fresh baked pies wafted through the air, carrying musical renditions by my brother, my grandma gave one last scan of the room, and as a final touch, crossed my legs in a provocative manner, not necessarily suitable for a ten year old. But the troops were prepared. Grandma Pearl was armed for battle.

When Martha walked in, Grandma was sitting in a chair clapping in time to my brother's playing. She looked up and gave her best surprised looked, as if she had been so enthralled with my brother's talents that she totally lost track of time. Martha took two steps into the room and said, "Pearl, could you make him stop that infernal racket?" Gesturing to me with a purse carrying elbow said, "Hmmm, looks like she's put on some weight." While making her way to the card table she asked, "What's that foul odor?" And when finally seated at the table, requested a dishcloth to "wipe down" the sticky surface.

But this blog isn't a documentary about Martha, but rather a behavioral science observation. Grandma knew Martha for over 20 years, and during that time I never once heard Grandma say anything nice about the woman. As a matter of fact, her comments were quite the contrary, but who could blame her? Martha was the bane of Grandma's existence. She traveled in Grandma's circle, so she was everywhere. Everyone else looked up to my grandma and sang her praises; but never Martha. Martha was quick to point out the flaws in Grandma's appearance, baking and card playing, and she did it so effortlessly. Grandma could not stand Martha...and yet...

Martha died. I don't know what Grandma's first reaction was to the news. She may have danced a little jig, she may have offered up a guilty prayer, or I'm thinking, she probably started planning the perfect outfit to wear to her archenemy's funeral; tasteful, yet bordering on the edge of disrespectful. But after the dust settled, and Martha was laid to rest, something strange and inexplicable happened...Grandma missed Martha. I'm sure there was the initial sense of relief when she was preparing for an event. Now, Grandma would only be tossed accolades, not stinging insults. Her efforts would be rewarded with praise, not criticism. But as any comic reading 10 year old would point out...superheroes are nothing without their nemesis. Superman had Lex Luther, Batman had The Joker, Luke Skywalker had Darth Vadar and Grandma Pearl had Martha. Without Martha continually trying to thwart her plans, victory was not as sweet. Grandma did not stop living when Martha died, but a major contributor to her motivation was buried, with what turned out to be, her friend.

Sometimes we take others for granted or fail to acknowledge their positive impact on our lives. Even a Martha can be missed!

The Joys of Christmas Past

Our house has seen a flurry of holiday activity since last Monday when our youngest came home from college. Truth be told, it started well before that as we made ready for the onslaught, but the actual joyful invasion has been streaming in over the past week. It is now 6:30 a.m. and Tim and I are just about to head out for our Christmas Dinner grocery shopping excursion, and I'm willing to bet we'll be back before the first of the brood stumbles out of bed on a quest for their morning elixir...aka...coffee!

At Christmas I'm always transported back in time. My memories return to a time when my grandparents were alive and still young...or at least energetic...I suppose they were probably mine and Tim's age! I can see my beautiful mother, in a holiday apron, business in the kitchen making magic. My father was usually consumed with the undaunted task of keeping all the Christmas lights...well, lit! I then scurry 20 years beyond that to a time when I am surrounded by my own babes, consumed with the joy of the holidays. It was during one of those Christmas times, when I was looking back, reflecting on the joys of Christmas past, that I penned a little poem.

The Joys of Christmas Past

The joys of Christmas past, can barely last,

When compared with my joy today.

When surrounded by, though just knee high,

My babies make this day.

I now understand, the feeling grand,

That Mary felt that day.

To see her child, both meek and mild,

Lying on the hay.

For all is right, this Holy Night,

As Mary could convey.

As days of old, it still is told,

God's children make this day.

I would like to wish everyone a blessed and joyous Christmas, and pray that you too, are surrounded by those you love! MERRY CHRISTMAS!

BTW...I'll be "off" the next 2 weeks enjoying the holidays with the family. I'll be back, Tuesday, January 5, 2009! Enjoy!

Christmas with the Girls

Tonight is our annual Girl's Night Out (GNO) Christmas Dinner. Actually, this really hasn't been a Girl's Night Out group in quite some time...we're now more of a Kick Off Your Shoes, Curl Up on the Couch and Stay at Home (KOYSCUCSH) kind of group! We began as friends then started a reading group, but soon realized only half of us had read the assigned book, and "which half" changed every month! Our titillating discussions went something like this...

Someone: So, what did everyone think of the book.

Someone Else: Oh, don't say anything about the end. I'm not done yet.

Someone Different: Hey, did anyone see (insert new movie) this weekend? What'd cha think about it?

At this point knew it was time to give up the guise of being a literary group. My girlfriend's husband affectionately referred to us as the "Books Aren't Us" or the "Unbook Club". He hit the nail on the head. It's not that we aren't literary people. Most of us are teachers and voracious readers, heck, some of us even belong to book clubs where we actually read and talk about books. It's just that when we get together, there are so many personal things we want to catch up on, that the books got in the way.

Realizing we were no longer a book club, we decided we would be an Out To Dinner (OTD) group. Every month someone would pick a restaurant, and we'd meet, eat, and have a chance to chat. THIS was definitely more in line with our collective need. We did this for a number of years then something happened. It was subtle at first, then blatantly obvious. Without a predetermined decision, the number of times we went out to dinner started to diminish and simply gathering at a friend's home began to gain momentum. Today, we do not have delusions of grandeur. We are what we are. A group of friends, content to snuggle together on the couch with a glass of wine and chat or meet at the local coffee shop on Wednesday mornings and catch up. We've been through many things together; death and births, illness and accidents, promotions and job losses, marriage, divorce and remarriage, retirement and second careers. And what we've come to appreciate is that it doesn't matter what we do, as long as we are together.

At Christmas time we like to have a special evening. We have dinner at my house, I make the main dish and everyone brings a little something, and for a few short hours, we can leave the chaos of the season at the door. (I spoke about one of our gatherings in Sweater Flambe.) Tonight I am making a very yummy dish called Chicken Supreme. (My children affectionately refer to it as "Barnyard Sampler" because cow, pig and chicken are all used in the recipe!) A lovely dinner and friends...it just doesn't get any better!

CHICKEN SUPREME

4-6 chicken breasts, halves (I use boneless, skinless)

4-8 strips of bacon

1/2 pint sour cream

1 can mushroom soup

1/4 pound chipped beef

5 ounces white wine

Wrap a strip of bacon around each half of chicken breasts. Put side by side in baking dish which has been covered with a layer of chipped beef. (Or place 2 pieces of chipped beef under the chicken breast and wrap the breast and chicken breast together with the bacon. Mix sour cream, soup and wine. Pour over chicken. Do not salt since bacon and chipped beef supply the salt. Cook uncovered at 300 deg. for 2 hours. The sauce will almost be absorbed and the chicken nicely browned outside.

*If bacon is especially fat, use half strip of bacon.

Serve with rice.

Is there anything special you do with your friends at Christmas?

Polish for a Day

I have a strong Polish ancestry. With the possible exception of contamination from an amorous invader that I am unaware of, I am 100% Polish. (Poland's history is laced with invasion and occupation from...well, from just about all neighboring countries!) I think I'm fairly rare today...a fourth generation American with a pure blood heritage. It stopped with my children, however. Their father is...well, he's a mutt. Nothing wrong with that; mutts have many wonderful qualities including hardiness and longevity. But this does mean I can't share my pedigree with my children; they too are mutts! What I can share with them, however, is the few remaining vestiges of my Polish ancestry.

You would think with all this Polish blood pulsating through my veins that I would be well versed in the culture and traditions of Poland, but I'm not. Both my maternal and paternal great-grandparents were born in Poland and came here hoping to improve their lot in life. Like most immigrants, they settled with their own kind. They spoke Polish in their homes and amongst their friends. It was their children, my grandparents, that ventured out into the American melting pot and brought English into their homes. So, the progression was, my great-grandparents spoke predominantly Polish, my grandparents spoke Polish in their homes, but English everywhere else, my parents could read Polish and speak it well enough to converse with their grandparents but English had become their native language, and I, well the only Polish I know is this rather naughty song that some relative taught me, but it would prove useless if I needed to communicate with a Pole!

Polish traditions followed the trend of the Polish language, with each generation giving up a little more of their connection to their motherland, until now, I'm left with the cultural equivalent of a little naughty ditty! The only time my Polish ancestry surfaces is at Christmas dinner. I serve pierogi (stuffed dumplings), kielbasa (sausage), golabki (stuffed cabbage), makowki (poppy seed bread), kluski (thick buttered noodles), kapusta (sauerkraut), mizeria (cucumbers and sour cream) and sernik (cheese cake). If that sounds Greek to you, it does to me too! In our house we use the English words for most of these foods.

The lovely thing about Christmas dinner, besides some seriously delicious food, is my connection to my past. There was a time when these foods were a mainstay in my ancestors' daily life. Today, they are reserved for special occasions; actually A special occasion, Christmas dinner. I wish my grandparents were still around to share this feast with us. Since they can't be, at Christmas I bring not only the memory of Bushia and Grandma Pearl in the kitchen with me, I bring their pictures. On my kitchen counter are photographs of my grandmothers as young women, taken at a time in their lives when they would have been busy preparing Christmas dinners. I rather think it would make them happy to know I still feel a strong ancestral tug. I also have pics of my mom and daughter there too, even though they spend the day helping me with Christmas dinner. But it pleases me to see the 5 of us together, knowing full well, that if not in body, certainly in spirit, we're sharing in the festivities of Christmas day, and that although my connection to my ancestry may be tenuous, it's still alive!

Christmas is a wonderful day to connect with our past. Do you observe any traditions on Christmas that you consider a link with your ancestry? Please share!

It's a Wrap!

For any of you that have been with me since last Christmas, you know I've already conceded that I am obsessive, and where Christmas is concerned, certifiably insane! (Check out A Tad Bit Obsessive!) Over the years I've created so many traditions that I need to start preparing for the Holidays in June...truth be told, I should actually begin the day after Christmas when a virtual cornucopia of perfectly good items are being marked down, but I never seem to mustard the internal fortitude necessary to battle the post Christmas crowds! My first real delve into Christmas comes in June when the women in my family go on our annual "Girl's Trip". (The Girl's Trip will require several blog entries to share hair raising adventures like our night with the ice pick murderess, popping wheelies on sand dunes with a 7 person minivan...my sister-in-law never truly recovered from that one, or forgave me...and an explanation of why you should never leave 7 cowardly women alone in a wax museum!) But all this is fodder for summer writing, back to Christmas! I use the girl's trip, with our insatiable foraging through as many shops as possible in a three day period, to begin collecting stocking stuffers and Advent tokens, thus begining my own celebration of the season! 

Anyway, one of the more evident traditions that evolved over the years was my gift wrapping practices. After a natural Darwinian evolution, my packages took on a homespun look, being wrapped in plain brown packing paper, with wide burgundy ribbons, and a heart attached to each gift, symbolizing, of course, the love that was being given along with the gift. When my children lived at home, I wrapped EVERYTHING separately; if they got a pair of socks...2 packages, a book trilogy...3 packages, and so on. I firmly believe that opening gifts is as much fun as owning what's inside! And, besides, if it took me 6 months to prepare for Christmas, I think it should take at least 6 hours to open gifts! Okay, a little hyperbole here! Maybe not 6 hours, but a goodly amount of time! And besides, when wrapped, the gifts were beautiful and became an integral part of my Christmas decorating.

But today's blog isn't about wrapping gifts; it's about what we have fondly come to call "The Great Gift Debacle"! Every year my children could ask for and get 1 gift from Santa. He's a busy guy, right? So many children, so little time! Well, every year I would buy special Santa wrapping paper and only those 3 gifts, the ones from Santa, would be wrapped that way. They would then be tucked away until Christmas morning. The rest of the gifts, from my husband and me, were wrapped in brown paper and were also hidden until Christmas morning. As the children got a little older, I began to put a few of the gifts under the tree as they were bought and wrapped. And, as my lust for gift wrapping increased, and my propensity to wrap socks and underwear separately grew, gifts began to overflow the tree and were stacked in nooks and crannies. Eventually, all of their gifts, except for Santa's would be under the tree days, sometimes weeks, before Christmas. For my children, having their gifts strewn about in this manner was both torture and tantalizing! For days before Christmas, the children sat around the tree, looking at gifts, shaking them, measuring them, and smelling them, trying to figure out the concealed contents.

This had become a tradition. And far be it for me to break ANY tradition. But one year, when my children were in middle school and high school, I had an idea...a scathingly brilliant idea. In order to thwart their sleuthing, I coded all their packages. I numbered each gift, and I kept the master list hidden. That year, when they picked up a gift to inspect, their only clue was a number! This put a new twist to their game. Not only did they try to figure out what was inside the package, but who it belonged to! When Christmas morning finally came around, I went to get my master list. Hmmm...I could have sworn I put it in the brown hutch. No, wait, I remember now...the last time I wrote something on it, I was at my desk. Hmmm...not there! Where did I put it? After 15 very long minutes, I gave up. I had to come back in the room and tell them I had no clue as to which packages belonged to anyone!

So, that morning, we played Christmas roulette. I'd pick up a package then look at it, shake it, measure it, and smell it and give my best guess as to who it belonged to! There was a lot of bending back the corner of boxes, as everyone tried to decide if the gift was intended for them. Snickering and out right laughter ensued as partially opened boxes sailed through the air seeking its rightful owner. It took a very long time to open gifts that morning. I'm still not sure that every box found its rightful owner, but close enough that everyone was satisfied! And, no, this did not become a new tradition. From then on, I went back to writing everyone's names on their packages. But that Christmas morning, amidst mayhem and confusion, one of our most beloved memories was born!

BTW...around April, when I was getting something out of the china cabinet I found THE LIST! As it turned out, losing it proved to be a wonderful happenstance! Do you have a favorite holiday mishap that turned out wonderfully? Please share!